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2nd big tax gaffe puts focus on Daniels

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Mitch Daniels has built a national image as a persnickety fiscal manager with an eye for detail, but two massive accounting errors that have tilted Indiana’s books by more than half-a-billion dollars threaten to tarnish that reputation as the popular Republican prepares to leave office.

State officials announced Thursday that a programming error at the Indiana Department of Revenue led the state to mistakenly withhold $205 million that should have gone to county governments. It was similar to a programming mistake disclosed in December, when budget analysts discovered $320 million the state didn’t know it had.

John Eckart, the revenue department commissioner, weathered the first gaffe but not the second, and tendered his resignation this week, effective at the end of the current tax season, state budget director Adam Horst said Thursday at a news conference in which the most recent oversight was disclosed. Two of Eckart’s deputies also left the department.

The state is now searching for an outside auditor to review how the state misplaced $525 million, Horst said. He said he is also looking at new budget controls that would help the state identify problems before they fester for years at a time.

“We feel like it’s all you can do at this point, and you hope that over time that confidence is warranted,” Horst said when asked how he would win back the public’s trust.

Republican leaders in Indiana’s General Assembly requested a say in picking the auditor. Democrats, who called for an independent audit of the state’s budgeting operation after the first mistake was discovered, responded “we told you so” to Thursday’s news.

Daniels may have the most on the line as he winds toward the end of his eight-year run as governor and continues touring the nation as one of the Republicans lead budget experts.

Since Daniels announced last year he would not run for president, he is still mentioned in Republican circles as a possible pick for vice president, although he has adamantly stated the same family concerns that kept him out of the presidential race would keep him from joining a ticket. Daniels left on a private trip to Israel on Tuesday, the same day he found out about the problem. He would not be available to take any questions, spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said Thursday.

“We discovered a problem, took responsibility, acted immediately and fixed the problem,” Jankowski said Thursday. “The state is projecting a $1.85 billion surplus, largely because of additional cost savings by agencies and stronger than expected revenues. Indiana’s fiscal position is stronger than ever.”

The governor’s critics say he has skated on the national stage while bungling management of the state. Beyond the two tax errors, they point to the state’s legal battles with IBM over the privatization of welfare delivery and problems at the Department of Child Services.

“It’s gotten to the point that it’s incompetent,” House Democratic Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said Thursday. “That’s one bad legacy. I don’t know how he’s able to overcome that.”

Darrell West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, said the latest gaffe could hurt Daniels’ image.

“Mitch Daniels has a reputation for running a tight ship so continuing problems in the administration of state government harm that image. It is hard to understand how millions of dollars weren’t distributed properly,” said West. “The governor has to deal effectively with these issues and make sure they don’t keep happening. Otherwise, people will reassess how they judge his stewardship.”

Horst said he told Gov. Mitch Daniels about the problem Tuesday and alerted legislative leaders about the problem Wednesday. Daniels left on a private trip to Israel Tuesday and was not immediately available for comment.

Indiana’s Legislative leaders, Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma and Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long requested a say in who is selected for the audit and demanded that the findings be reported to the Assembly’s budget leaders. Democrats initially requested an independent audit of the Department of Revenue last year after the $320 million error was discovered, but were rebuffed by promises the administration would conduct its own review.

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